In the restaurant, he watched his daughter, Tabitha, carefully. She looked like his wife when she was young – more so than she had before, he thought. He wondered if his absence, or if his wife’s consistent presence during the past few years, made this so. It seemed like a punishment.
He watched Tab, putting her napkin in her lap, wearing a blue pea coat — she was cold, she said. He had driven straight up to her New England college from the airport to bring her to dinner. It was fall, but he had not seen her since June.
Her new roommate, Charlotte, sat alongside her, not nearly as beautiful, but smiling, wearing the same blue pea coat with the same long brown haircut with bangs, telling him about where she was from.
He wished Charlotte would stop talking, wished that Tab had not brought her. He was just in from Ghana, doing work for a month, but he and his daughter emailed weekly, and he had heard about this girl, this friend Charlotte, from Long Island with doctors for parents. A girl from a family that lived in the same house her entire life, unlike his own daughter (now looking at Charlotte, as if in awe) – he and her mother had moved her to a new country almost every year.
He watched his daughter pick at her salad and sip her wine.
“Tell me about your courses,” he said, looking directly at Tab so Charlotte wouldn’t answer.
Tab bit her lip. She seemed nervous. Different. It was hard to believe she was already in college. The last time they had seen each other had been in France, when she had visited him in his apartment. He and his wife had broken up for good three years ago, and he had taken an apartment in Paris as a base while consulting for a non-governmental association. A long time ago, when he was Tab’s age, he wanted to change the world.
“We’re both taking photography,” Tab said, looking over at Charlotte, who smiled.
The restaurant was small – Charlotte had picked it – and the girls knew a lot of the staff. The college was not one that he would have chosen for his daughter — too artsy, too rural – but Tab had insisted.
He watched his daughter, and wondered if he had even mentioned Sabine, the new woman he was seeing, the photographer. He tried to remember if Tab met her in Paris. No, he did not think so. He had met Sabine after, when she had come to take his picture for an article on his human aid work. That had been in July, he thought. He had been hot, sweating through his shirt in his living room, making coffee, then posing for her. She was much younger than he – closer to Tab’s age than his own.
“You’ll be able to take great shots in Nairobi over break,” he heard Charlotte telling Tab. The girl looked like she had never been out of New York. He watched his daughter nod, her neck long and straight, with her mother’s big eyes and lips.
* * *
After dinner he drove the girls back to the school. It was a nice, sprawling campus, with old architecture. The girls pointed out different buildings behind the trees in the setting sun.
“Do you want to see our room, Mr. Dean?” Charlotte asked as he drove them to their dorm. Her whiny voice was bothering him — he wondered if next time he could see Tab alone.
“Sure, sure,” he said, parking next to the big old building, a former mental institution the girls had informed him. Now his daughter’s home.
Their room was on the first floor. As soon as he walked in, he recognized the tapestry and rug that Tab brought from the house where they lived in Pakistan. On the floor was a small wood table they had picked up ages ago, before that, when they lived in Nepal.
The rest of the room, however, was decorated in nothing he had seen before.
“My mom got Tab a matching bedspread,” Charlotte said, pointing to the comforters on the girl’s beds: a bright print with psychedelic green swirls.
There was a big fluffy white carpet in the center, and framed photographs of places he did not recognize on the wall. He looked at the girl’s open closets: Charlotte’s overflowing, Tab’s with only a few things, folded neatly.
“Do you like it?” Tab asked. Her voice sounded higher than he remembered: more like Charlotte’s. He looked at one of the photos on the wall. A small one, taped next to his daughter’s bed. It was a picture of him and his wife and Tab when she was younger, when they were living in Sudan. He recognized the house in the background.
“Oh, wait!” he said, taking the small video camera that Sabine had loaned him to shoot his daughter. He had almost forgot.
He turned on the camera as Tab watched. She looked surprised.
“Wow, Dad. Where did you get that?” she asked.
He was about to tell her, “Sabine,” but then changed his mind.
“Oh, a friend of mine,” he said, turning the camera window on the way Sabine had shown him. He looked through the lens and focused on his daughter.
“Smile!” he said.
He heard Charlotte laughing, then saw her in the frame next to Tab. They sat on the bed, their arms around each other.
“Why don’t you interview us, Mr. Dean?” Charlotte said. She smiled wide through the lens and he wondered if she brought boys back to the room.
“OK, girls,” he said, looking past them, out the dark windows, to the night. “Tell me about your photographs.”
Back at the bed and breakfast, he called Sabine. She told him she was getting out of the shower.
He loved her French accent. It was like his ex-wife’s. He loved accents in general – almost all of his women had been foreign.
“Did you take a video?” she asked.
He sat down at the small antique-looking desk and took out his computer and the camera.
“I’ll send it to you,” he said. “I miss you. She has this very annoying roommate, who she loves.”
He heard Sabine light a cigarette and exhale.
“Oh, that’s normal for girls that age,” she said. “They fall in love a little with their friends. I had a friend like that at university too.”
He wondered where that friend was now, and if Sabine had ever introduced him. Whenever he went out with Sabine’s friends he felt uncomfortable – they were young, they all smoked, and even though he was fluent in French, he often had trouble following.
He downloaded the video and emailed Sabine while she talked about her friend, telling him how once they had even made love.
“Oh, I don’t think that’s what is going on here,” he said, laughing, lying down on the frilly white bedspread.
“That’s because you’re her father,” she said, laughing too. He wished she were there, naked, next to him. He hated sleeping alone. It was what started the affairs in the first place – traveling all the time, in new cities without his wife. He liked a woman next to him. Sometimes it didn’t matter whom.
* * *
The next morning he drove to the campus to meet Tab, as planned. As he arrived, he saw her and Charlotte, in their pea coats, smoking outside the dorm. He did not know Tab smoked, and wondered if her mother knew. He figured it was something new, the way she held the cigarette so delicately.
“Hungry?” he asked, as Tab got in the front seat and Charlotte settled into the back.
He smelled the girls in the car and thought of Sabine.
“Yes!” Charlotte said in her strange, high voice. “We’re so hungover.” Both girls began to laugh.
He followed their directions to a diner in town, where the girls waved to other students at other booths, all wearing dark clothes, looking unwashed, some with paint splatters on their jackets.
Tab did not introduce him to anyone, but he didn’t mind. He sat down across from the two girls again and watched as they whispered and laughed, and he thought about what Sabine said.
He had listened to her the night before, lying underneath the sheets, but changed the subject quickly. Sabine was a different kind of girl – a different kind of woman – than his daughter, surely. Tab had always been an easy child – only upset when they had to move. The past three years, with her mother, in Nairobi, had been good for her, his ex-wife told him; it was important for a teenager to stay in one place. He had grown up near Boston, and lived in the same house until he went away to college. He would have loved a childhood like his daughter’s.
Both girls ordered cheeseburgers and French fries; he ordered a grilled cheese. He watched as Charlotte whispered something to Tab, pushing the hair behind her ear, gently. Both girls giggled.
“So what did you do last night?” Charlotte asked. The way she looked up at him suddenly gave him a strange feeling: It felt like she was flirting with him. He wondered if she acted like this with all the adults she knew.
“Um, I just went to bed. The bed and breakfast is nice. Thanks, Tabby, for picking it out.”
“Oh, Charlotte picked it out. Her parents stayed there,” Tab said. He watched as she rolled a ring he did not recognize on her middle finger.
“Well, thank you, Charlotte,” he said.
“No problem!” Charlotte said, too enthusiastically. The waitress came and gave them each their meals.
“We went to a party,” Charlotte said, picking at her fries. “Tab likes a guy named Joe Sloan.” He watched as Tab nudged her, and Charlotte began to whisper. “He’s into her, too.”
Tab had never mentioned a boy to him before. He had not thought of it, although he knew in the past three years that boys must have begun to notice her. It made him want to change the subject, imagining Joe Sloan.
“He’s a sculptor,” Charlotte said, which annoyed him even more.
He looked at Tab who said nothing, as she picked up her cheeseburger, looked at it and put it back down.
After lunch, he went back to his bed and breakfast for a nap. The girls said they had to study, but they would all meet up later and go to an art show.
He lay down on the bed that had been made while he was gone, and looked up at the cracked ceiling, imagining Charlotte’s parents in his same bed, fat and American, sleeping far away from each other on opposite sides. He wondered if Charlotte’s parents had taken Tab to the same restaurant, if they had watched as she barely ate.
He picked up his phone and called Sabine. When she answered there was music in the background, smoke in her voice.
“Hello, my love,” he said, rubbing his socked feet together the way his father used to do.
“Bonjour,” she said. He heard laughter that was not hers. “How are the girls?” He told her they were fine, that they just finished eating, and asked if she got the video.
“The video! A-ha! Your daughter is very beautiful.”
“She looks like her mother,” he said, then quickly regretted it.
He turned to face the window and listened to her exhale. He imagined her at one of her friend’s houses, but didn’t ask where she was.
“Oh, and the friend,” she said. “They are cute! In love!” She laughed, but behind her voice, he could also hear the laughter of other people.
“What do you mean?” he asked. He felt a bit annoyed.
“You are such a blind father. You can see it in the video. They are in love.”
He looked at himself in the mirror, his hair thinning in the front, but longish still. The light made his white hair look blond.
“I think you are projecting, dear,” he said.
On the other end, the music suddenly got louder. He heard a click.
“Sabine?” he asked.
“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I dropped the phone.”
“I have to get going,” he said.
After he hung up, he took out his computer and put it on the desk. He sat in the desk chair, crossed his legs, and pressed play. He watched as his daughter and Charlotte appeared on the screen in their bright room.
“OK, girls,” he heard himself say. His voice sounded strange, not the way he imagined. “Tell me about your photographs.”
He watched as the girls, both wearing tank tops with cardigans buttoned over them — Tab’s in green, Charlotte’s in black – gazed at each other. He saw his daughter’s fingers pinch her friend’s side while Charlotte squealed.
“OK, OK, be serious,” Charlotte said, trying not to smile.
She cleared her throat and looked over at Tab. She made her hand into a fist and brought it to her mouth, pretending it was a microphone. “What do we take pictures of?”
His daughter, small on the screen, blushed, Charlotte’s pretend microphone now close to her lips. Like an ice cream cone, he thought.
He watched as Tabitha looked at the camera, at him, then back at her friend. She looked down and answered his question.
“Each other,” she said.
He shut the computer and lay down on the bed. He was tired, jetlagged. It was something he never mastered, even after all the traveling. Sometimes he woke in a new city and forgot where he was. He would lay there with his eyes closed for a few minutes, trying to remember. He listened to the sounds, felt the temperature, before opening them. He hated to be surprised.
He thought of Sabine, and then his ex-wife, when they first met, when he studied abroad in Paris. She was the same age, then, as Tabitha. They were in a science class together; she was quiet and always wore her hair in braids. When he finally spoke to her, she undid one of the ties and began to unravel her hair while she talked.
He remembered his ex-wife later, after she had let her hair go grey, miserable from moving with him year after year, alone in their house in Addis Ababa when Tab was in junior high. He’d found her one day when he came home early lying in the backyard while one of the groundskeeper’s mowed the grass around her. When he saw her, he signaled the groundskeeper, an older man, to stop mowing by making a cutting motion to his neck.
He ran to his wife, framed in the middle of the small patch of lawn, her eyes closed, and asked what was wrong. She opened her eyes, as if she was sleeping, and whispered that she had asked the groundskeeper to mow around her, that it was the only way that she could stop thinking.
* * *
It was dark when he woke to the sound of his cell phone ringing. It was Tab, telling him it was already almost 10; he was late for the art show.
He quickly got dressed, wishing he could take a shower first. He felt grimy, but knew from his daughter’s voice that it was more important that he arrive as soon as possible.
He drove to the college art gallery, where outside, he spotted Tabitha and a bunch of girls, including Charlotte, smoking under the lights. They weren’t in their pea coats; instead they were dressed up: Tab in a short black skirt and heels; Charlotte in a short black dress and boots. It seemed funny to him, seeing them so elegant in such a rural setting. It made him think about culture, about ritual, and for a moment he wondered why anyone got dressed up at all. Then he wondered why people didn’t. Then he stared at his daughter. She had her mother’s legs.
“Let’s go inside,” Tab said when she saw him, taking his arm. He smelled beer on her breath.
He felt a pull on his other side and looked to see Charlotte taking his other arm.
“You ready?” she heard Charlotte ask, not sure whether she was talking to him or Tab.
Inside, the space was large and dark: only small spotlights lit the artwork. In the middle of the gallery was a DJ set up with records. It was crowded and loud: students dancing and drinking. He wondered if he was here with Sabine if he would feel just as old.
He looked at the art on the walls – mostly abstract and large – and wanted a drink. He asked Tab where he could get one.
“I’ll get it for you,” Tab said, and he felt himself being pulled out of the entrance way and onto the dance floor by Charlotte.
He was sure people were looking at him; he was so much older, dressed so differently in his button-down and khakis. As he stood there, looking around, Charlotte began to dance in front of him, her arms in the air, spinning and shaking her hips, suddenly attractive. The lighting, so dim and smoky, made it look like a dream.
He looked around for Tab, feeling sweaty. Charlotte took his hand and twirled herself beneath it.
“Come on,” she said, leaning close, yelling over the music. “Dance!”
He shook his head no, and kept looking for his daughter.
Charlotte kept dancing, spinning beneath his arm as his stood there, still. He felt his way outside himself, watching the girl, and thought suddenly of what Sabine had said to him on the phone.
“Your daughter and her friend have such a strange way of speaking — like babies,” she had said after watching the video. “That’s how molested girls talk.”
Suddenly he pulled his hand away. He needed to find his daughter. Something about the way Sabine said that so confidently made him worry that she knew something that he didn’t, that he had missed something all along.
He walked past the DJ booth, bumping into kids sitting drunk against the wall, past the awful art, looking at the faces of girl after girl, looking for his daughter. He bumped into a boy, accidentally, and looked into his pale, skinny face. His lip was pierced and he wore a scowl.
“Do you know where the drinks are?” he asked.
The boy pointed to the other end of the gallery where a long line of people snaked out from the dark. He turned the corner to get to the front of the line when he saw it: large and spot-lit and black and white. For a second, it felt like vertigo. What is my wife’s naked body doing on the wall?
“Hi Dad.” He felt his arm being tapped, a cup placed in his hand, heard a little girl’s giggle.
“Do you like it?” his daughter asked in her baby voice.
He did not know. He looked up again, at his daughter, lying nude in some grass, her eyes closed, her hair blown back, as if by a fan. He tried to think of what he knew about photography, tried to look at the light and the shadows: the framing of the sky behind his daughter’s right breast, the contrast of her dark pubic hair with her white thighs, the shape her mouth made, half open, half closed. Her long, long neck bent sideways.
He thought of his ex-wife, lying in the grass that day, and he thought of Sabine and wondered how she knew about molested people. He looked down at his beer, then at his daughter, standing next to him, smiling, and wondered if someone had touched her.
“I have to go,” he yelled, over the music.
He turned and walked towards the exit, past swarms of kids who now looked darker, dirtier than they had before. He stepped into the night, past the smokers, and began down the path that he had come from.
Small lights lit the way on the pavement, and he followed them toward his car, then decided to walk past it, out from the gravel parking lot, towards a distant field.
He looked at the old buildings and wondered if Tab had gone to a better school, if she hadn’t met Charlotte, if he never would have gotten this in his head. Because now that Sabine had said it, he worried it was true: In some country or another, she could have been molested.
He thought of all the men that had been around them for years. Men raking his yard in Malaysia, and guarding his house in Johannesburg. Men coming from overseas for dinner, men walking their dogs, men assisting him, staying in their spare bedrooms, going in and out of their homes.
There were men everywhere, he thought, throughout his daughter’s childhood. And now there were even more men, here, slinking around, looking at Tabitha naked on the wall.
He wondered if his ex-wife ever suspected something like this. She certainly would have if she had seen the photo. Maybe that was why his daughter let herself be photographed naked. It was the act of someone disturbed. Touched.
He stopped out in the middle of the field and looked at the stars, but suddenly felt breathless, and realized he had been walking very quickly. He leaned over, and felt his heart beating fast. He put his hands on his knees, closed his eyes, and wondered, for the first time in his life, if he was going to have a heart attack.
He breathed deep, determined to stand, and did so, even though he felt lightheaded. He looked back to the gallery, across the field, where he could still see the kids mulling about outside. If he had a heart attack, right now, in the field, no one would know. Tabitha’s picture would continue to hang on the wall, and she would continue to walk around, a girl who had not been protected.
He began the trip back, rehearsing what he was going to say. He would walk in, take the picture down, and when asked, would tell them he had bought it. He would put it in the car and take it somewhere to burn.
As he got closer to the building, he heard Tab calling him. He could make out the silhouettes of the two girls running towards him in the dark; for a second, he thought of running the other way.
“Where were you?” Tab asked, grabbing hold of his arm again.
“Come back in!” Charlotte said, walking a bit in front of them towards the door.
As he followed his daughter back into the gallery, through the crowd that now seemed even larger, he watched her jacket-less back, the way she walked almost pigeon-toed, and remembered the last time they had all been together: he and his wife and his daughter.
They had been sitting at the kitchen table in Nairobi: His bags were packed and they were eating their last breakfast on the porch of the house his wife and Tab would stay in. The maid was serving them orange juice and eggs, and the sun was shining in on the wicker chairs and the tile floor.
He remembered looking across the table at his soon-to-be-ex-wife and daughter, and for a moment forgetting everything – how his wife had told him it was over; how he would be leaving in only a few hours to live in another country, alone; how they had told Tab the night before that they were splitting up – and feeling a surge of love, a swelling, for his beautiful family. It was the strangest feeling – it felt almost physical – he fought the urge to stand and gather the two of them to his chest; he imagined squeezing them each on one side, telling them how lucky he felt to have them.
It was then that he heard a sound that he had not heard before. At first he thought it was a stray cat, or else their dog, Jax, hurt in the yard. But then he saw it was coming from right next to him: His daughter, her head down, tears streaming down her face, was whimpering. When he said her name she did not look up. Her shoulders shook but otherwise her face was still, just a terrible sound, like she had been wounded, escaping from her.
His wife had gone over to her, and kneeled next to her, hugging her, putting her head in her daughter’s lap. He remembered thinking he wished he had thought to do that, because he had done nothing, just sipped his orange juice, then got up to get ready to go. Hours later, when he was ready to leave, he found Tab and her mother, lying in his old bed, asleep. He looked at them for a minute, his wife curled against his daughter’s boney back, but did not wake them to say goodbye.
Now his daughter, smiling and seemingly happy, pulled him past the dance floor and back near her picture. He could see it as they walked, getting bigger and bigger as he got closer. He wondered how it was mounted on the wall, if it would come right down when he lifted it, or if it would be more complicated than that.